Bioethics Blogs

The Deadly Business of an Unregulated Global Stem Cell Market

Guest Post: The deadly business of an unregulated global stem cell industry

Tereza Hendl and Tamra Lysaght

In our paper, we report on the case of a 75-year old Australian woman who died in December 2013 from complications of an autologous stem cell procedure. This case was tragic and worth reporting to the medical ethics community because her death was entirely avoidable and the result of a pernicious global problem – doctors exploiting regulatory systems in order to sell unproven and unjustified stem cell interventions.

The patient at the centre of this case, Sheila Drysdale, underwent a liposuction procedure administered by cosmetic surgeon, Dr Ralph Bright, at his private Sydney clinic. Dr Bright did not perform this procedure for cosmetic reasons, but rather to ‘treat’ her advanced dementia with adipose (fat) derived stem cells. Mrs Drysdale died within ten hours of the surgery. Following an inquest into her death, the New South Wales Deputy Coroner stated that the utilisation of stem cells to ‘treat’ dementia was “highly questionable” and displayed “some of the hallmarks of ‘quack’ medicine,” particularly owing to the lack of scientific evidence supporting such ’therapy.’ The Coroner, thus, called for a more rigorous regulation of ‘innovative’ medical procedures in Australia that would protect vulnerable patients. Sadly, the relevant regulatory authorities have done very little to bring about any justice for Mrs Drysdale, or to address the systemic problems in Australia’s legislative framework that allows medical professionals to offer unproven stem cell-based interventions to patients without any accountability.

This case came to our attention as part of the work being done on an Australian Research Council funded Linkage Project “Regulating autologous stem cell therapies in Australia.” (LP150100739) This is a major study being conducted in a collaboration between researchers at the University of Sydney, the University of Melbourne, the Australian National University, and the National University of Singapore, and partner investigators at Multiple Sclerosis Research Australia, Arthritis Australia and Motor Neurone Disease Association of Australia.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.